Klan: the next generation

The horrific murder of a black man in Texas this week is a chilling reminder that organised racism is alive and kicking in America.
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It is rare indeed that a hate crime of white violence against blacks occurs without its trio of dreaded initials falling under almost knee-jerk suspicion. Oh God, goes out the cry, the KKK are back! It happened during a spate of black-church burnings in the South in 1996, until it was pointed out that more white churches had been torched in the same period than ones attended by blacks.

It is happening again in the East Texas town of Jasper, as it struggles to digest the ghastly details of Sunday's murder of 49-year-old James Byrd, a black. Three white men are now in custody, charged with his killing. According to police, Mr Byrd was given a ride in the trio's pick-up, taken to a remote spot, kicked into unconsciousness and then dragged behind the vehicle for two miles, one of his ankles attached to the back bumper by a chain. Mr Byrd's body parts, including his head, were found strewn along the tarmac.

It is not just that a cigarette lighter marked with a Klan symbol was found by the side of the road. The region is steeped in a history of racial division and KKK activism.

There was eerie news this spring from western Pennsylvania. Fanning out in local towns after dark, members of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had been caught night-riding again. Scholars of the Klan, founded after the Civil War in the Deep South by Nathan Bedford Forest, are familiar with the term. So are most American blacks. It was the name given to the nocturnal sprees KKK members used to indulge in when the organisation was at its political zenith in the 1920s. In white gowns with spooky, pointed hoods, they would travel the countryside burning crosses and terrorising black homes.

That was then. What the Klan folk were up to in Pennsylvania was altogether more prosaic: they were intercepting local newspapers thrown on to the driveways of suburban homes and wrapping them in their racist-laced recruitment literature.

Few are the newspaper editors willing to risk their readerships by taking paid advertisements from Klan organisers. Their calling it night-riding was merely a tilt at nostalgia. Yes, the KKK is still alive and functioning in the United States of the late 1990s. Indeed, there have been occasional reports of recruitment drives in Britain also.

However repugnant it may be to the overwhelming majority of Americans, the KKK finds sanctuary in the First Amendment of the Constitution protecting the right to free expression. Just how healthy the movement is, however, is far from clear.

In its March newsletter, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, reported a disturbing increase in the number of hate groups in the US of all denominations. It documented 474 different groups involved in racist activities, a 20 per cent increase since its last report in 1996. Among them, the biggest groups were KKK organisations and their chapters. Also on the hate list, however, were an assortment of neo-Nazi cells as well as fanatic religious groups preaching white domination, notably the Idaho-based Aryan Nations and the National Alliance. The Poverty Center, moreover, believes that the KKK has expanded its base in the last two years. As an example, the Indiana-based American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had gone from claiming just one chapter in 1996 to 12 last year. The Center concludes that while the Klan may be relying still in part on traditional means of recruitment, such as public rallies and literature distribution, it has also learned successfully to yoke the Internet to its cause. The Center found 163 active hate-group web sites.

"People who may be curious no longer have to go to a rally or have a secret meeting to know about the KKK," the Center's Miranda Henderson explained. "You can be in the comfort of your own home and apply for membership over the Internet, which is the major tool now for the Klan." At the same time, however, most experts agree that since the recent peak of about 12,000 in the 1980s, overall membership of the various Klan organisations has slumped to between 3,000 and 5,000. Hence the huge Internet drive and the night-riding to piggy-back propaganda on newspapers.

Gail Gans, Research Director for the Anti-Defamation League in New York, believes that Klan members are increasingly defecting to the other racist- based factions as well as to militia groups, whose main enemy is not ethnic minorities but rather the government itself. "In some of the more modern hate groups, the Klan is really considered old-fashioned, a part of the history of America," Ms Gans suggested this week. "The skinheads, in particular, regard them as old duffers."

If that is indeed a problem for the Klan, it is one of its own making. It clings still to its archaic, 19th-century inheritance. Its leaders persist in calling themselves Grand Wizards and Grand Dragons and sometimes the entire organisation is referred to as the "Invisible Empire".

The white robes, often bordered with purple, are still the uniform at KKK rallies. While the garb may still be intimidating and provocative to some, against the back-drop of a suburban shopping mall the effect can also be faintly comical. The name, if you were wondering, derives from the ancient Greek word for circle, kuklos. KKK.com, one of the Klan web sites, attempts to explain. "Circle, because in it is contained some unique characteristics of the White (or Aryan) race ... kuklos thought about in this context simply means `White Racial Brotherhood'."

Whatever else, the Klan still maintains a strong grip on this country's race-fixated imagination. One of the 30-odd KKK chapters in America is based in Jasper's neighbouring town of Vidor, where, in 1995, robed Klan members protested an attempt by the federal government to install one black family in a housing project that had hitherto been all white.

But so far, there is no evidence that the murder of James Byrd was staged by the Klan; that has already been acknowledged by the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I don't think it was a group-sanctioned or group-inspired killing of blacks," said Joe Roy, who heads the organisation's intelligence project. "I think it was guys who were ruthlessly, brutally, racially motivated".

That said, the race-hate symbol on the lighter, as well as Aryan Nations tattoos that apparently adorn the bodies of two of the three suspects, indicates at least that they were race-hate sympathisers. The call of the KKK for a separation of whites from other races may reach many who may not be paid-up members but who like what they hear - and who may even feel compelled to act on it with violence.

Ms Gans of the Anti-Defamation League suggests that any crumbling of the Klan's ranks could lead to more violence, not less. "When they get into this kind of fragmented state, where they aren't strong and they're trying to get attention, the possibilities for violence increase. Followers become less amenable to structure and leadership".

Indeed, in its literature - also available on the KKK.com web site - the Klan stipulates that members obey the law. Thus, officially at least, it disassociates itself from acts of violence. Some Klan leaders have been known to tip off federal investigators about nefarious plottings among their bands.

That was the case in southern Texas last year when federal agents successfully foiled a conspiracy among members of the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to blow up a chemicals plant. The explosion was conceived as a distraction while the perpetrators were carrying out an armoured-car heist a few miles away. The proceeds from the robbery were tagged for a subsequent race war across the land. When the crooks were looking for a fifth member, the leader of the chapter urged the FBI to plant a mole. The FBI's "Operation Sour Gas" was duly implemented and the four arrested before harm could be done.

It was not, as it happened, quite the triumph that the FBI at first suggested. Once in custody, the foursome were revealed as hopeless bunglers who would very likely have mucked up their entire escapade even without police interference. The whole saga, which had received overblown national media attention precisely because of the KKK connection, was earlier this year joyously lampooned by Texas Monthly magazine. "The operation netted the goofiest gang of terrorists this side of a Carl Hiaasen novel," it quipped.

According to the ADL, it has been seventeen years since the KKK was last linked in court to a lynching and murder. Three members of the United Klans of America were convicted in 1981 in Talladega County, Alabama, in the killing of Michael Donald, a young black man who went out one night for cigarettes and never came home. On behalf of his mother, the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully sued the chapter for $7 million, putting it out of business.

Whatever its true state of health, whether in decline or amidst an Internet- assisted renaissance, the KKK remains a force no one is ready to ignore, in America's imagination if not in fact.

"Of course we have to be alarmed," Ms Gans said. "Although the numbers may be small compared with the wider population, there are guys out there who are unhappy with their neighbours and with their government. We should be concerned, but we should not be frightened to death".